- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Shortly before Danny Ainge found his niche as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale's running mate in Boston, he pursued a rare two-sport double and took a whirl at a Major League Baseball career. But his allergy to fastballs was too much to overcome, and he put away his spikes and glove after hitting .220 in 665 at-bats for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ainge's meager statistical line included two harmless groundouts against Rich "Goose" Gossage, the latest Baseball Hall of Fame inductee. There has to be a neat little anecdote tucked in there somewhere, right?
Sorry. Where Goose is concerned, Ainge blotted out the gory details a long time ago.
"The only thing I remember about Gossage,'' Ainge said last week, "was that I couldn't hit him.''
If this comes as any consolation, the Boston Celtics' general manager is in some impressive company. The list of hitters who felt overmatched by Gossage in his 22 seasons is long enough to stretch around the block -- not to mention fill a row on the podium during induction day in Cooperstown.
The team captain of Gossage-related futility is Dave Winfield, who went 0-for-10 against the Goose. But he's not alone. Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez and Gary Carter were among the prominent right-handed hitters who had little or no luck against Gossage's overpowering fastball and slider from hell.
Robin Yount, who amassed 3,142 hits in the majors, stepped in the box against Gossage more than any Hall of Famer with the exception of Rod Carew. Yount squeezed out a mere six hits in 37 at-bats, for a career average of .162.
"That sounds a lot better than it felt,'' Yount said. "I never even made contact against him.''
Gossage, who will enter the Hall of Fame on Sunday with manager Dick Williams and four posthumous inductees -- Bowie Kuhn, Walter O'Malley, Barney Dreyfuss and Billy Southworth -- waited nine years to arrive in Cooperstown. He's never been shy to express frustration over the length of his wait, pointing out that baseball writers who compared him to modern-day closers were guilty of mixing "apples and oranges.''
Before radar guns were in vogue and closers became a pampered and well-compensated breed, Gossage was both a workhorse and a star. During one three-year stretch of relief with the White Sox, Pirates and Yankees, he averaged 26 saves and 136 innings a season.
Gossage didn't just send hitters back to the dugout, he demoralized them. And the sense of foreboding began when Billy Martin and his other managers began warming him in the sixth or seventh inning. This wasn't the "Nasty Boys'' -- with one primo arm handing the ball to another, then another in a virtual assembly line of despair for hitters. Gossage was the middle man, the bridge and the closer, and in one formidable package.
Former big league outfielder Ken Singleton, now a TV analyst for the YES Network, fared better against Gossage than most, with 12 hits in 35 at-bats for a .343 career average. But Singleton recalls how the mere sight of Gossage could alter the mood in the dugout.
"At Yankee Stadium in those days, they used to bring in relievers in a bullpen car,'' Singleton said. "The car would drop the reliever off in front of the dugout and he'd go to the mound.
"Well, when Goose came out of the car, it's like he was shot out of a cannon. We'd look at each other and say, 'We've really messed up now.' He had that Fu Manchu, and when he'd throw that first warmup pitch, you'd think, 'He's sure throwing harder than the last guy that was out there.' ''
When you looked
out at Goose, you thought he was going to walk off the mound and beat you up. I never really had that feeling with anybody other than Nolan Ryan.
In 1978, when Gossage finished fifth in the Cy Young Award balloting, he won 10 games and recorded 27 saves in 134 1/3 innings with the Yankees. Contrast his workload with the potentially historic run this year by the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, who has recorded 43 saves in 46 1/3 innings to take aim at Bobby Thigpen's single-season save record.
Where Gossage was concerned, style and substance were intertwined. Mariano Rivera is all about reliability and precision, and Dennis Eckersley was quick to flash competitive fire beneath that California tan. But Gossage was the closest you could get to Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke in a baseball uniform.
"If the game was on the line, you knew he was going to throw you fastballs, and every one got harder,'' Yount said. "And more smoke came out of his ears, and more stuff came out of his mouth. He was just grunting like a wild bull out there, ready to charge.''
Talk to hitters who faced Gossage, and they recall the encounters with such stark and vivid detail, it's as if they expect him to emerge from the memory bank and give them a residual smack down.
Lefties generally fared better against Gossage than righties, who had to cope with his cross-body delivery as well as his velocity. But that didn't necessarily make it a pleasant experience. Just ask former Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry, a lefty hitter who batted .067 (2-for-30) with 10 strikeouts against the Goose.
Wade Boggs, .328 career hitter and five-time batting champion, remembers manager Sparky Anderson summoning him to pinch-hit against Gossage in the ninth inning of the 1985 All-Star Game in Minneapolis.
"It's a good time to hit, Boggsy,'' said Anderson, in his inimitable style. But when Boggs looked out and saw Gossage destroying the catcher's mitt, he was slow to embrace that sentiment.
Even though Boggs worked a nine-pitch walk in that at-bat and hit a career .444 against Gossage (4-for-9), his mind still tells him that he never reached base vs. the Goose.
"The one word that comes to mind is 'intimidation,' '' Boggs said. "When you looked out at Goose, you thought he was going to walk off the mound and beat you up. I never really had that feeling with anybody other than Nolan Ryan.
"People don't understand that when he threw a fastball 93 or 94 miles an hour, it moved three feet. And his slider moved six feet, so you were just trying to zero in on a little piece of the ball and make contact. All you saw was arms and elbows coming at you, not to mention the glare when he looked at you. It was the most intimidating thing you could imagine.''
Even in a day when players were less inclined to fraternize, Gossage carried himself with an air that told opponents to keep their distance. Gossage was so imposing and hyperintense during his tenure with the Padres, the San Diego Chicken mascot was scared to venture anywhere near the home team's bullpen.
A few years ago, Yount went golfing with Gossage and a mutual buddy, Bob McClure, and was surprised to find that Gossage was one of the nicest people he's ever met. Through the many years the two players competed against each other, they had barely shared a word.
Yount's most memorable at-bat against Gossage came on the final out of Game 2 of the 1981 American League Division Series. Yount hit a popup behind home plate and exhorted the ball to go into the stands, but Yankees catcher Rick Cerone caught it against the screen for the final out.
"I'm arguing with umpire that the ball hit the screen, and I turned around and some guy was yelling at me, 'The game is over! Get the hell off the field!' '' Yount said. "It was Goose. And guess what? I got off the field.''
Two and three decades after sending these guys to bed without any supper, Gossage now joins them on the stage in Cooperstown. For all the grief and discomfort he brought them, the consensus is that it's about time.
"The day has come,'' Boggs said. "This is a guy whose presence exemplifies what pitchers are all about. If there were more Goose Gossages, there would be fewer hitters in the Hall of Fame.''